Suharto’s Brutal Legacy

General Suharto, Indonesia‘s former dictator, has died at the age of 86. He was, for many years, Ottawa‘s man in Jakarta.


Of course, he was also Washington‘s man in Jakarta. In many ways, he was similar to Washington‘s pre-1990 man in Baghdad. For most of their thuggish careers, he and Saddam Hussein had U.S. support, among other things, in common. Both consolidated their power after participating in bloody purges of communists and radical nationalists. Saddam purged the Left from Iraq‘s Ba’ath Party; Suharto took the helm after helping purge the Left from the Indonesian archipelago the 1965 coup that overthrew the nationalist government of Sukarno was followed by the murder by death squads of up to a million activists, workers and peasants.


Both Saddam and Suharto viciously repressed political opponents and ethnic minorities; both accumulated great personal wealth and handed down top security and economic positions to their children; both illegally annexed small neighbouring states: Kuwait in 1990 and East Timor in 1975, respectively.


While the 1991 Gulf War was waged in the name of liberating Kuwait (and restoring a monarchy that denied women the right to vote), the massacre of civilians later that year in East Timor’s capital, Dili, elicited no response from western media and no outcry from western politicians. During the two and a half decades of Indonesian occupation of East Timor, it is estimated that 200 000 people were killed. Suharto’s regime also massacred thousands in other oppressed regions, such as Aceh and West Papua.


For all their similarities, then, the politics of empire intervened and led Saddam and Suharto to very different ends. The "butcher of Baghdad" was hanged in a rushed execution, while the butcher of Dili died surrounded by the best medical attention money could buy.


In Canada, it’s worth remembering the shameful role with respect to Suharto’s regime played by the Liberal Party, which claims to uphold a humanitarian tradition in its foreign policy.


Back in the 1990s, the strongman in Jakarta was respectfully referred to in our mainstream media as President Suharto. He was touted as a modernizer, a unifier, and an important ally in Canada‘s quest to expand trade and investment in Southeast Asia.


Canada sold weapons to the dictatorship, which then Liberal Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific Raymond Chan justified on the absurd grounds that they were defensive weapons only.


And so it was that in 1997, when Vancouver hosted the APEC summit, Jean Chretien’s Liberal government rolled out the red carpet for the dictator, and dished out the pepper spray and riot squads on the activists who worked to expose Suharto’s gross human rights violations and Canada’s complicity.


At the University of British Columbia, where one of the main gatherings of the heads of state was held, a security fence was erected, "preemptive" arrests were made against protest organizers like Jaggi Singh, and of course pepper spray was used liberally. According to a public inquiry held after the APEC protests, in the lead up to the summit Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy had debased his office to the point of apologizing to the Indonesian authorities for a Suharto "Wanted" poster that had proliferated around town.


Seeing this spectacle up close as an undergraduate provided me with an intense and valuable learning experience about the true nature of politics. Back in the quaint days before the "war on terror," our rights to freedom of speech, assembly and dissent were quickly automatically, really, with the justifications made up on the fly subordinated to the needs of capital.


All the high-sounding rhetoric of human rights from the likes of Axworthy disappeared in an instant when it came to appeasing a key business partner. Subsequent Liberal foreign affairs ministers, such as Bill Graham and Pierre Pettigrew, would up the ante from complicity to outright aggression when, for instance, Canada played a key role in overthrowing Haiti’s democratic government in 2004.


It’s worth noting too that, back in the 1990s, it was initially only very small networks of activists on the Left who worked to bring the plight of East Timor to the public’s attention in Canada. It was a tiny nation, half of an island, with a Roman Catholic majority that was occupied by the world’s most populous Muslim country. Those standing up for self-determination for Palestine and Iraq today, against whom pro-war ideologues trot out Islamophobia and "clash of civilizations" nonsense, were the same people agitating for the freedom of the Timorese, who happened to be a predominantly Christian people.


At the time, the East Timor Alert Network (ETAN), with the help of the odd outspoken MP such as the NDP’s Svend Robinson, did the heavy lifting to expose the Liberals’ complicity with Suharto’s crimes.


A statement on ETAN’s U.S. sister group’s website sums things up eloquently:


"Indonesia‘s former dictator General Suharto has died in bed and not in jail, escaping justice for his numerous crimes in East Timor and throughout the Indonesian archipelago…"


"To overcome Suharto’s legacy and to uphold basic international human rights and legal principles, those who executed, aided and abetted, and benefited from his criminal orders must be held accountable."


We can be sure that current Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier and his Conservative colleagues will make some statements on Suharto’s death parroting whatever comes out of Washington.


But I’d really like to hear from the likes of Chretien and Axworthy. What do they have to say for themselves and what do they have to say now about the dictator that they aided, abetted, and protected from protest?


Derrick O’Keefe is the editor of


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